Some clarity on Rushdie, please!

23 Jan,2012

By Ranjona Banerji


The case of Salman Rushdie and the Jaipur Literary Festival gets curiouser and curiouser. After the Deoband seminary asked that the writer be denied a visa to attend the festival, Rushdie clarified that he did not need a visa to visit India. Newspaper articles and TV debates focused on freedom of speech and the sentiments of Muslim voters keeping the UP elections in mind.


After a couple of days of confusion, the Rajasthan government said it feared violence if Rushdie showed up. Soon after Rushdie announced he wasn’t coming because of death threats reported by the Mumbai and Rajasthan police. It took The Hindu to break the lies off that story – there were no such threats said the Mumbai police and they had passed on no such information to anyone. The Rajasthan police then corroborated this and the Rajasthan government waffled on about how they felt there was a threat and the Union home ministry also issued an advisory about a threat and then said that the government was willing to provide security.


So far then we have examples of religious sensitivities, an election, a controversial writer and governmental pusillanimity. By now, confused readers and viewers were weeping for a comprehensive report putting all these diverse elements together. No such luck. Front page news and top of the hour headlines give you updates but not explanation and analysis.


Editorials and opinions were still about freedom of speech and not so much about all these other angles popping up. India’s long and controversial history of dealing with “sentiments” also needs better examination. Sidharth Bhatia has commented very aptly on our fear “offending” sentiments in Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle. Fali Nariman on the Indian Express edit page points out that blasphemy laws in the UK apply only to Christianity and are still in use.


The additional problem now seems to be that the organisers showed some extra caution or cowardice – depending on how you look at it – by seemingly giving in to official pressure. Apart from a little hysteria on TV from the Hyderabad-based Asauddin Owaisi of the MIM, not enough effort has been spent perhaps speaking to Muslims and their representative groups about the issue, except perhaps by Mohammed Wajihuddin on the Times of India and by the Indian Express.




TV and the newspapers have kept up the pressure as far as the story goes, however. Extra twists have come from four writers, who in protest, read from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which is still banned in India. These writers were then either asked to leave the festival or left of their own accord. Again, reports are confused. Writer Hari Kunzru writes on his blog that he read from the book as a form of protest but seems to imply that the organisers wanted him to go since they had been “advised” of a threat or arrest. Jeet Thayil is quoted as saying that the organisers did not ask him to leave per se and they must have their reasons. Ruchir Joshi writes in India Today that Rushdie should be judged on fact not fiction.


Everywhere then there is this “perceived” threat from some or the other Muslim groups but it’s all very bewildering. Nowhere have there been reports of massive street protests by Muslims or vandalism or anything similar. The organisers have appeared on TV saying that Rushdie chose not to come and that they had even at the last minute informed him that the Rajasthan government was willing to provide security. Yet, according to TV reports on Monday morning, even a video link up to Rushdie was seen as a terrifying idea.




Clearly, what we need is clarity! If someone could please do a little investigation and give us the real and perceived threats and figure out who is really in danger, other than the Indian Constitution.



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